Kelsey Halliday Johnson : “The best art makes you walk through the world differently, like it recalibrated you.”

When you think of this season’s theme, Kristin Chang’s poem “Etymology of Butch,” what elements / images / phrases most strike you? How does your work relate to these ideas?

Chang’s poem was magnetic for me as it shifted between shared cultural meaning and autobiographical reflection. Returning a queered word back to a potent sense of mortality with the butcher and her own body as animal is powerful and grounding for me. The “moon’s mistressing” and “daughterhood is something like dogness” are ideas I’m still tumbling around in my mind. How women express ourselves as an animal body is this site of societal policing we must reject again and again. And as I reread it, Chang reminded me of some things I won’t ever know, like the freedoms of being a son.

I increasingly come to cultural production with a desire to display the evidence of some shared sense of history or meaning but also knowing that we can’t get beyond ourselves; that shared meaning is a kind of logical fallacy. I like creating a heightened sense that context slippery, because it is. “Language is fugitive.” In that sense, artists have this ultimate means of transformation, moving meaning through time. I frequently work with archives (personal, institutional, or culled from the web) and use autobiography as a launching point, so the intentions feel kindred.

Describe the work you’ll be contributing this season.

The fact that butch could root itself in butcher, that there is an act of aggression that has to be inserted in the gendered presentation of something is inherently alienating to me and immediately made me want to return to the butcher, to subvert it’s parental word in etymology entirely. Whether it’s gender fluidity in a variety of different fish species or Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the etymology of a word like “butch” disavows both the natural world and utopian futures we could have. Gender self-actualization has to be seen as a nonviolent path of giving abundance to the body, not slaughtering it. Since encountering your project and prompt I’ve been playing with archival photographs of butcher shops, a historically masculine space and gendered profession (like so many). With ink and watercolor I’ve been kind of obliterating the bodies in them or rendering them neutral voids.

You speak about your interest in the archive, both private and personal. What draws you to archival work in relation to creative practice and art making? And how does this relate to your work in photographic mediums?

We increasingly find ourselves surrounded by archives or producing them every day. Encountering mass images used to be held apart from private individuals within institutions, and now we have search results at our fingertips. We trust archives to tell us the truth, and many of us are constantly building our own archives to construct a narrative about ourselves. That is a powerful and complicated thing that lets me explore relationships to ideas and history, as well as how we represent ourselves.

We trust archives to tell us the truth, and many of us are constantly building our own archives to construct a narrative about ourselves.

I used to paint and draw much more than I do now, it was driven by an urge to get my hands in the material itself because photography’s meaning felt so rigid.  I was skeptical of that, and was able to eventually realize that skepticism was an important thing to dive into rather than avoid. So I found another way back into photography by making cameras, playing with films that pick up other wavelengths of light, and reassembling archives or re-presenting images that had existed in some other form. Playing with the context of the images allows me to point to historical power dynamics or norms that I’d like to draw attention to or consider in another way.

Our theme this season relates to etymology, the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings change over time. How do you define yourself / your work? How has this definition changed over time?

Definitions are indeed clumsy things, that’s why I so enjoyed your prompt. In the past, I’ve struggled to define myself personally, professionally, sexually, or artistically, and have generally ceased putting pressure on myself to do so. I’ve been a researcher, an activist, an artist, a curator, a writer, an observer, an administrator, a historian, a collaborator. I let the work speak for itself and am always ready to keep evolving as a person. My work can be very project based, I love that each project can define itself and ask it’s own questions. Typically as soon as I start finding answers, you can find me off in a new field of questions.  

What types of ghosts haunt your work? What kind of relationship do you have / want to have with these ghosts?

I think it was Sontag who wrote that all that was left of Whitman’s ideas were “paper ghosts.” I suppose I spend a good amount of time seeing how paper ghosts of history are more than the fragments they appear to be, and if we can rebuild alternate dreams or narratives with them. I’ve certainly been deeply interested in the systems of belief that accompany photographs from spirit photography to science, and how even in an era of Photoshop most people trust the photographic as a kind of indexical text. That trust is a belief, not a founded fact. Exploring the belief systems that accompany photography and how our past beliefs haunt the image histories we leave behind is really a generative engine of my work.  

Typically as soon as I start finding answers, you can find me off in a new field of questions.

Do you have any creative routines or rituals?

Perhaps it’s unsurprising based on the nature of my work, but I like collecting things, books, ephemera, and specimens from the natural world. The routine of collecting, the ritual of revisiting a collection in my space are ways that I ground my ideas and memories. I’ve always found plants very creatively nourishing as well, and keep a pretty active green space in my home. The tending to plants is a ritual that sustains me and the change the plants undergo is filled with surprises that humbly reminds me to always keep observing.

What are you listening to / reading / looking at right now?

Helado Negro, Japanese Breakfast, Weyes Blood, Sons of Kemet, Chris Forsythe, Makaya McCraven, and the new Karen O/Danger Mouse collaboration have been the primary new music on heavy rotation for me these days.  

I’ve been reading a lot about the conceptual art collective Art & Language and wrote a bit about them for Title Magazine in Philadelphia and Common Field’s Field Perspectives. Their mode of working was to subvert and redefine words, so its certainly left me thinking about the artist’s role in definition and world building. For pleasure reading, I’m just finishing Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem and ready to dive into the rest of the scifi trilogy.

Notably, I just went to see Will Rawls and Claudia Rankine’s What Remains at ICA Boston, and that’s been on my mind as an exploration of voice, embodiment and disembodiment, and the act of watching.

Exploring the belief systems that accompany photography and how our past beliefs haunt the image histories we leave behind is really a generative engine of my work.

What are you afraid of?

Inaction; that we don’t have the appropriate words or images to persuade people to change their lives towards an environmentally sustainable future. I think it’s about time that I let that fear and it’s accompanying questions drive my work a little more.

Who is one of the most influential people in your (biological and/or chosen) family lineage? How do you feel their influence in your work?

My brother battled childhood leukemia when I was a teenager and that truly bound me socially to my family in a significant way as many of my peers didn’t have a way to connect with what we were experiencing. His bravery in the face of such unknowns will always be an inspiration to me and an moment in time that connected my whole family with our mortality, humanity, and best selves. That whole experience also led me to have a different relationship to documents of our lives like photographs, because I wondered if they could ever have the capacity to tell a full story.

I have taken influence in my work from a lot of my broader family too, from the postcard collections of my father’s mother to the environmental actions and dreams of my mother’s brothers and father. Many stories in my family have become a launching point for me to explore if there are similar narratives further afield, or ways that the personal can become political and speak to larger histories.

What is a piece of work that moved you deeply? What reaction surfaced in you?

This is a hard question as I’m on a constant quest for work that moves me deeply, but my mind immediately wants to answer with the collection of poems by Jenny Xie entitled Eye Level. I’ve kept it next to my bed for months and can’t stop rereading some of them. It’s the kind of work that floods you with a kind of love and newfound sensitivity for the details of the world. The best art makes you walk through the world differently, like it recalibrated you. ■  


Kelsey Halliday Johnson (b. 1986, Philadelphia, she/her/hers) currently lives and works in Portland, ME. Using autobiographical and archival approaches, Johnson’s personal practice critically explores human perception, our evolving understanding of the verisimilitude and function of the photographic medium, and our mediated relationship to the landscape. Her work has been exhibited at organizations including Vox Populi, the Berman Museum of Art, the Delaware Art Museum, the Lucas Gallery at Princeton University, the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Icebox Project Space, Delaware Contemporary, EXPO Chicago, and Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at The University of the Arts. An alumna of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University, Johnson received her interdisciplinary MFA at the University of Pennsylvania with a certificate in Landscape Architecture and holds her bachelor’s degree in Art and Archaeology from Princeton University with a certificate in European Cultural Studies.

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